Page last updated at 22:16 GMT, Sunday, 28 March 2010 23:16 UK

Pope Mass hints at fightback against abuse critics

The Pope at Palm Sunday Mass in Vatican City
The Pope is under pressure over abuse allegations in the Catholic Church

The Pope has spoken of the need not to be intimidated by critics, in a veiled reference to anger at the Catholic Church over past sex abuse scandals.

At a Mass in Rome's St Peter's Square, he said his faith would help give him the courage to deflect "petty gossip".

The Pope has been accused of failing to act over the case of a US priest alleged to have abused 200 deaf boys.

But the Archbishop of Westminster defended the Pope, saying he had introduced rules to protect children.

'Swamp of sin'

At the Palm Sunday service, Pope Benedict, 82, did not directly mention the wider scandal - involving the abuse of children by priests in several countries.

But he told the tens of thousands of people gathered to hear him that God helped lead "towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion".

The buck stops with [the Pope] and he should resign
Activist Peter Tatchell

He also said man sometimes fell to the "lowest, vulgar levels" and sank "into the swamp of sin and dishonesty".

The most senior Catholic in England and Wales, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, said just one case of child abuse was enough to create "justifiable anger".

He said the "anger and dismay" over the alleged cover-up by some Catholic clergy was "proper".

However, he added allegations about the Pope's involvement were unfounded.

Vatican denial

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "He [the Pope] pushed forward for example a fast-track to defrock priests who have committed abuse. He changed the statute of limitations in Church law.

"He changed the law so that sexual offences committed with anyone under the age of 18 would be a crime in Church law."

The Pope has been accused of failing to act over complaints during the 1990s about Fr Lawrence Murphy, who was alleged to have abused some 200 deaf boys in Milwaukee.

A placard held by protesters at Westminster Cathedral
Protesters at Westminster Cathedral call for the Pope to step down

As head of the Vatican office dealing with sex abuses, the Pope - then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - allegedly did not respond to letters about the case from a archbishop concerned about the abuse.

The Pope's intervention, following a plea by the priest concerned, is also said to have resulted in the halting of a church trial.

The Vatican newspaper denied this, calling the claims a "smear" attempt.

Meanwhile on Sunday, members of Westminster Cathedral's congregation clashed with placard-carrying protesters calling for the Pope to resign.

The Protest the Pope coalition said he should go because he failed to ensure priests who abused young people were reported to police.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell alleged the pontiff ordered a cover-up in a 2001 edict to Catholic Bishops worldwide.

Mr Tatchell said: "The buck stops with him and he should resign."

The Pope has apologised to victims of abuse before and recently said sorry to them in a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics.

He said he acknowledged the sense of betrayal in the Church felt by victims and their families.

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